IN talks in New York tomorrow, the United States will make a last-ditch effort to keep North Korea from bolting the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and perhaps building a nuclear bomb of its own.
The US agreement to the talks is a concession, and a signal that Washington may be ready to meet demands by the North, such as putting a stop to US-South Korean military exercises.
The talks come just 10 days before the North can officially withdraw from the treaty, having given the requisite three-months notice on March 12. Both sides have hinted they are ready to makes compromises, but the US says the talks will be limited to two points included in a resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council on May 12.
That resolution, which passed 13-0 with China and Pakistan abstaining, demands that Pyongyang reconsider its decision to drop out of the NPT and accept inspections requested by the treaty's implementor, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
North Korea announced its withdrawal after the IAEA demanded a "special" inspection of two sites that the agency suspects contain evidence that Pyongyang has produced far more plutonium than it has reported. The IAEA's request was based in part on evidence from US intelligence.
In the talks tomorrow, the US wants to give the appearance that it is negotiating under UN approval in case the North does finally withdraw from the NPT. In that case, the US could more easily obtain Security Council approval for economic sanctions against North Korea, South Korean officials argue.
But China, which provides North Korea with about three-quarters of its oil, has warned the US that it would not support UN sanctions against its communist ally in Pyongyang.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen while on a visit to Seoul told South Korean officials that China has very little leverage with Pyongyang, despite the North's economic dependence on China. "We oppose pressure," said Mr. Qian, whose trip to Seoul was seen as disapproval of any attempt by the North to manufacture a nuclear bomb. The US has also tried to narrow the scope of the talks to nuclear and military issues by sending Robert Gallucci, the assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, as chief negotiator.
N testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Gallucci hinted at possible US concessions to North Korea's concerns about the US military presence in South Korea. "What we're prepared to do is to address concerns that we regard as legitimate security concerns that they have raised to date," he said.
The US, eager to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, is concerned that North Korea would set a precedent by being the first nation to withdraw from the NPT.
If Pyongyang does stay within the NPT, says one South Korean official, then it may be using its threat of withdrawal merely as a way to convince Japan that it should quickly improve relations.
"The North Korean economy is so close to collapse that it desperately needs Japanese aid and investment," he said. "But the Japanese won't move unless Washington does."
Because China is opposed to sanctions, it has urged both the US and South Korea to talk directly to Pyongyang. As result, South Korea proposed last month to reopen talks with the North.
The two sides already signed a set of wide-ranging peace pacts between their prime ministers last year, but the pacts have not been implemented. The North has since proposed that each nation's minister of "unification," rather than their prime ministers, open talks.
But Seoul officials worry that the North may want just to set up a whole new set of negotiations as way to avoid past agreements.